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East Ramapo's tab for losing voting rights case pegged at $4.3M

On top of the $4.3 million a judge says E. Ramapo schools owe to NAACP lawyers, the district has spent $7 million for its own lawyers over two years on the case, according to the NAACP.

Thomas C. Zambito
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

A federal judge says the East Ramapo school district owes $4.3 million to NAACP lawyers for their successful challenge of the district’s method for electing its school board, a setup deemed unfair to Black and Latino voters.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith McCarthy rejected district claims the payout will be an “financial hardship” that siphons much-needed funding away from a public-school system where most students are Black or Latino.

McCarthy said the district decided to pay lawyers for a Washington, D.C. law firm as much as $650 an hour in a losing effort to defend a voting method that has led to school boards dominated by Orthodox Jewish men for more than a decade.

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“The District chose to expend substantial resources, as it has done in connection with past lawsuits, to procure expensive counsel to defend the way in which it elects members to its Board —a process which was found to violate the VRA (Voting Rights Act) and unjustly silence the voices of minority voters,” McCarthy wrote in a Dec. 29 report and recommendation to U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel.

The district has already spent $7 million in fees for its own lawyers in the two years since the case was filed, according to lawyers for the Spring Valley chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The district will have to decide this week whether to challenge McCarthy’s recommendation. Its attorneys, David Butler and Randall Levine, could not be reached for comment.

The NAACP lawyers, from the New York Civil Liberties Union and the private firm of Latham & Watkins, were seeking more than $9 million in fees and costs.

The NYCLU will receive more than $900,000 while Latham & Watkins receives about $2.8 million. Another $618,000 will go to legal costs and expert fees.

Latham & Watkins says it will donate its fees to a non-profit to assist East Ramapo school children. Attorney Andrew Clubok said the board has shown “it can’t be trusted with the money. They’ll just give it to their own lawyers.”

The NYCLU statement added: “The NYCLU will use this reimbursement to continue to fight for equity and opportunity for East Ramapo’s public school community. The court’s award reflects not only how consuming it can be to litigate voting rights cases, but also why defendants might drive up costs as a means to intimidate voters from bringing or continuing legal challenges. The district spent years fighting to preserve an illegal voting system that disenfranchised Black and Latinx residents."

The district refused several offers to settle the case, including one that would have spared the it legal fees for a trial that spanned six weeks in U.S. District Court in White Plains.

“The NYCLU, Latham and Watkins, and the Spring Valley NAACP offered the district a number of opportunities to settle this case, conserve public school resources, and honor the rights of people of color in East Ramapo,” the NYCLU said in a statement. “Instead, the district chose to dig in and force years of litigation at ever-greater expense. With this award, the court tells other would-be vote suppressors that they can’t simply run up the tab to avoid accountability.”

The payout would place even more pressure on a $247 million school budget that was cut by $2 million in June after being rejected by voters.

In a letter to the court in July, former superintendent Deborah Wortham said if the district was forced to pay the $9 million in fees it would likely need to cut kindergarten, English, math and social studies teachers.

Raymond Giamartino, the interim superintendent of the East Ramapo Central School District, joins the Sept. 1, 2020, school board meeting via Zoom.

The district’s superintendent, Ray Giamartino, who took over for Wortham in the fall, said the payout will be factored into this year’s budget discussions.

"As we continue to frame the district's 2021-22 budget during this very challenging time, we are being thoughtful and deliberate, focusing on maintaining equitable access to high quality programs, services and resources for our students and community, recognizing that any additional costs, reductions in aid and unplanned expenditures may have a direct impact on any of these areas,” Giamartino said.

Dr. Deborah Wortham, superintendent of East Ramapo Central School District, leaves United States District Court in White Plains Feb. 27, 2020.

School board president Harry Grossman could not be reached for comment.

Second legal blow to East Ramapo this year

This is the second legal setback for the district over the past week. On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld Seibel’s May ruling declaring the district had violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Seibel said race, not policy preferences like lower taxes as the district had argued, led to nine-member school boards dominated by white, Orthodox Jewish men who looked out for the interests of the district’s private school students.

Each year, the district pays to transport some 30,000 students to private yeshivas with money that comes from the district’s budget.

The appeals court noted that the district continued to increase transportation funding even as it was decreasing funding for the public schools by cutting teachers and programs.

Seibel ordered the district to switch to a ward or neighborhood-based voting setup that could improve the chance of minorities gaining seats on the nine-member board.

Under such a system, voters from a geographical area would be able to vote for candidates representing their ward.

With an at-large system, voters from across the school district could vote for all candidates for open seats.

Elections for all nine seats on the board will be held by mail-in ballot on Feb. 2 unless the district seeks a delay while it challenges the appeals court ruling.

District officials have not said whether they intend to appeal but are expected to take up the issue at a Tuesday board meeting.